While Nancy Pelosi told the press about her plans to avoid challenging Donald Trump for as long as possible, for fear that he might bring down our whole pretense of legitimate government, the Intercept was publishing a long account of how things stand on the southern border. It was a profile, written by Ryan Devereaux, of Scott Wilson, who is facing criminal charges that range from littering up through felony conspiracy for his efforts to assist migrants as they try to pass through the lethal Arizona desert. The littering consisted of leaving jugs of water for people to find, so that they don’t die of thirst.
Operating out of the town of Ajo, Arizona, Wilson and his fellow volunteers have been confronting, for years, the facts of United States immigration policy, facts which take the form of bones in the desert. It is crucial to understand that these bones—these people’s dead bodies—have been accumulating in the desert since long before Donald Trump and his ethnonationalist bigot advisors took control of the executive branch. People began dying in the desert, by the dozens and the hundreds and eventually the thousands, because of mainstream, respectable, bipartisan government policy:
“Prevention through deterrence,” the strategy that undergirds U.S. border enforcement, was born in the mid-1990s, after Border Patrol chiefs and Pentagon officials came together to address a problem. The politics of the moment were calling for an immigration crackdown. Recognizing that the “absolute sealing of the border is unrealistic,” the planners saw border cities as “areas of greatest risk for illegal entry.” So, one by one, those cities were flushed with agents and security infrastructure. “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement,” the planners noted at the time. Acknowledging that those who strayed off traditional routes could “find themselves in mortal danger,” the planners wrote that “violence will increase as effects of the strategy are felt.”
This was not Trump’s theater of cruelty. It was the theater of denying the existence of cruelty, of claiming credit for tough-mindedness while pushing the actual harm and damage out of sight—like lives in solitary confinement in prison, or wars fought by classified drone operations. It acknowledged the existence of conscience, at least as a matter of manners, while the people diverted into the desert died there. The Border Patrol destroyed caches of water, to help ensure they would die. Scavenging animals, a forensic anthropologist told Devereaux, would start eating “the fingers and the face,” the parts that identification of a person starts with.
Experts can only guess at the true number of lives lost over the last two decades. At a minimum, more than 7,000 people have perished, though the true total is guaranteed to be higher. During the 1990s, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner dealt with an average of 12 migrant deaths annually. Over an 18-year period beginning in 2000, once prevention through deterrence was humming along, that number rose to 155 per year. According to the medical examiner’s office, 2,943 sets of human remains have been found in southern Arizona from 2000 to the present; a death toll nearly double Ajo’s summer population.
Trump made it worse, as he reliably does. The accelerationist theories of Trump—whether on domestic, foreign, or border policy—held that he would at least puncture the reigning hypocrisy, and allow things to be seen as they truly are. In practice, it turns out, there are worse things than hypocrisy; specifically, there is outright nihilism, backed by contempt. Rather than doing evil, or suffering evil to be done, in the name of good, Trumpism does its evils in the name of the idea that there cannot be any such thing as good, that good is a fraud and an insult, to be driven away with greater fraudulence and more ruthless insults.
So the Border Patrol crashed through whatever limits and understandings had grown up to enable volunteers to try to save the lives of migrating people. Deveraux described the aftermath of an election when humanitarian volunteers for the group No More Deaths “say Border Patrol agents used their megaphones to urge them to ‘vote Trump!” and the newly appointed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, promised a crackdown. Not long after Sessions toured the area, the Border Patrol raided No More Deaths’ headquarters, Byrd Camp, which they had previously deferred to as a humanitarian site, to arrest migrants:
On April 12, the day after Sessions’s Nogales visit, Fife, the Sanctuary Movement co-founder, and a group of No More Deaths volunteers met with the Border Patrol Tucson sector’s interim chief, Felix Chavez, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright. In a sworn court declaration, Fife later said that he asked Chavez if his agency’s agreement with No More Deaths was still in place, and that he left the meeting “with the firm understanding the agreement had been affirmed.” The dialogue continued after the Byrd Camp raid. On July 6, Warren joined Fife and veteran No More Deaths attorney William Walker for a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson. Several land managers teleconferenced in. According to the accounts of multiple individuals present at the meeting, Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Lee left those involved with the impression that his office was not interested in prosecuting No More Deaths volunteers. A Fish and Wildlife official who attended the meeting noted that “95% of issues between the Government and NMD are with Department of Interior” and added that “Tickets issued are dismissed/not prosecuted if the person shows up to court (DOJ has them ‘Commit’ to not violate again).”
But while federal officials were taking meetings with No More Deaths, they were also developing ways to stop the organization from doing its work.
This dynamic—activists coming to what they thought was an informal understanding of how much space they had to operate, only to see the authorities decide to slam that space shut—was depressingly familiar. It was how things went in China before and after 2008, as the hopes of liberalization gave way to the reality of greater control. The kind of power that leaves people to die in the desert cannot be reformed or reasoned with.